Drinking Up: Sam Wynne and Belgian-Style Pale Ales

Sam Wynne of the Flying Saucer

Sam Wynne, Beverage Director at the Flying Saucer and Meddlesome Moth. (Photo by Rich Vana)

They’ve spent hundreds of years making beer, the Belgians, and the beverage’s place in its society is such that some of its best iterations are made by the most spiritual of men – Trappist Monks, that is. Balanced flavors, intricate subtleties – they’re the hallmark of just about any style of Belgian beers, from the ambers to the wits – and their style of the pale ale is no exception.

Though the idea of a pale ale today may bring to mind a hoppy explosion (Stone makes an ‘Annihilator’ IPA, so called because of its effect on the palate), the Belgian-style pale ale experience is quite a different one. Maintaining the carefully structured approach that is the trademark of Belgian brewing, the Belgian pale ale does indeed feature hops to an extent, but not to the point that it might incur an exhausted palate. Rather, its balance of hops, spices and malts make for the perfect Texas Fall beverage – at least, according to Sam Wynne, the Beverage Director at The Flying Saucer. Wynne, who is also a Cicerone, took a few minutes to chat with us about Belgian-style pale ales, and explained to us exactly why they make for a satisfying change of pace from the beers of Summer.

Thanks for chatting with us, Sam. We last spoke about the Belgian witbier and why it’s such a great Summer beer. What makes the Belgian pale ale so appropriate for the beginning of Fall?

Well, when we talked about the Belgian wits last time, we talked about how it’s a classic summary session – you can have six of them in a sitting. For me, though, a Belgian wit is almost limited to the hot, sunny times. When the sun goes down, or in the winter time or when the leaves start to turn, that’s where beers like this start coming back. This, to me, is the beginning of the Belgian Pale Ale Season. You start looking for a little bit more of that higher ABV, and it has warming characteristics as well.

Really, as far as a classic fall is concerned, it might not be the right beer, but for a Texas fall I think it’s ideal. For us, fall  is more about the edge coming off of the heat rather than it actually cooling off, and this is a beer that really stands up to those milder summer days that we call fall. And once the sun goes down, our fall happens at night – You get that little bit of cool breeze coming through. That’s where I start to not feel right drinking a wheat beer.

So what is it about the Belgian pale ale that separates it from the IPA style?

Well, even just looking at it, you see that the color is pale in the classic sense, whereas when it comes to the modern understanding of the Indian Pale Ale and the American Pale Ale, you start to think of Pale Ale as a term not referring to its lightness – I think a lot of people hear pale ale and they think of hops, or kind of a bigger beer, which was obviously not the original intention.

In fact, of the things that makes the Belgium brewing tradition so great is not only how far back it runs but the delicate balance that they’re going for in a general sense. Even with a triple or quad you start seeing 9, 10, 11, 12 percent ABVs being clocked in, and people are quick to say, ‘Oh, that’s an extreme beer,’ but when you take a step back, close your eyes and take a sip, you really see a lot of delicate things being balanced very beautifully.

But I think the biggest thing about the Belgian style beers is the uniqueness of their yeast. When I think of Belgian-style beers, the yeast is clearly on the forefront. With American-style beer, you start to think of hops being the rationale behind it. UK and Ireland beers tend to be the more malt-forward beers with your porters and stouts. I think Belgium is the king of the yeast. When I’m drinking a beer like this, that’s what I’m looking for – the effervescence , the aroma; there’s something very specific about this beer in particular (Green Flash’s Rayon Vert). When I’m thinking about that, I love the way that it feels in your mouth – it almost gets fluffy as soon as it hits your tongue. And that effervescence is something that I think is a medicine all in itself.

The Rayon Vert is an example of the style, but is from California – what breweries in Belgium are known for their pale ales?

I’d say De Koninck and Orval really are two of the biggest standouts.

Is the Rayon Vert a pretty accurate representation of those styles?

Yeah, and this is a style that we definitely try to represent, though it is a bit of a catchall style. A lot of times if something doesn’t quite have a very specific definition then a Belgian Pale Ale is a real easy way to throw it in there. What we’re trying to go for is moderate ABV, delicate hopping, and light, easy drinking on the palate. As you can imagine, that’s a very open-ended set of rules.

So really, to get the best feel for the intricacies, we just have to try them all, then?

Yeah, that would be a good start.

About Rich Vana